Oct. 30, 2008
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
We the People
“I don’t even want to vote,” my friend Czesiek muttered under his breath as we passed a poster displaying candidates for Poland’s Parliament. “What’s the point? They’re all Communists. It’ll just be more of the same … corruption, propaganda, lies.”
Welcome to the electoral system of mid-1980s Eastern Europe. As a law student, Czesiek was intimately familiar with the text of the Polish Constitution which, on the surface, appeared a positive testament to citizens’ rights. In reality, it was a mere piece of paper, usurped by police-state tactics.
Had Czesiek “protested” by declining to vote, he might jeopardize his shot at getting a passport for a temporary stint in the West. He had a job lined up for the summer, working as a janitor in Amsterdam. He knew his passport request could be denied by the authorities for any reason, including voting abstention.
From the fuzzy annals of childhood memory, I remember my mom slipping on her shoes and coat after dinner to walk to the polling station down the street from our house. Dad would follow soon after. My parents voted in shifts so as not to leave my sisters and me alone at home at night.
As naturalized American citizens, Mom and Dad came from a communist nation where elections were not free. At least in America, there were distinct choices to be made regarding whether politics was about preserving privilege or creating opportunity for those willing to grasp it.
My parents voted solidly Democratic, believing these candidates would stand up for hard-working people who hoped for something better for their children. Politics was not a philosophical abstract in our family. Politics was about health insurance, fair wages and access to quality education.
Dad, having arrived in America a decade before my mother, cast his first presidential vote for John F. Kennedy, a Catholic from Massachusetts. My father went on to support Johnson, Humphrey, McGovern and Carter. Feeling the stress of taxes on his workingman’s wages, he temporarily jumped ship to become a Reagan Democrat, much to my dismay. As a college student, I measured a candidate’s worth based on his or her commitment to expanding educational opportunity to include students from less affluent families. Dad didn’t quite “get” that the Pell Grant, loans and Work-Study I received somehow made up for the fact he didn’t earn enough money to help me pay for school. We made our “political peace” in 1988, both casting ballots for Mike Dukakis.
Personal politics are often influenced by the families in which we were raised, the education we received and the political conditions we experienced. I was deeply affected by my blue collar roots and inspiring teachers who challenged me to think critically about a candidate’s words and actions. A study-abroad stint in a communist nation solidified my understanding of the importance of protecting civil liberties.
It’s not my place to tell you how to vote. It is my place to encourage you to vote and to vote your conscience. America is mired in an unceasing war on multiple fronts. Our financial system, as evidenced by the collective price we’re paying for unfettered greed and compromised regulation, teeters in uncertainty. Some folks right here in Williston — our neighbors — are experiencing food insecurity. One hundred jobs have been lost by the closing of Hinesburg’s Saputo Cheese as rumors of layoffs at other employers circulate. Williston witnesses the failure of one of its “big box” stores, collapsing into insolvency while leaving behind a hard-to-fill sarcophagus, a reminder of bloated expectations.
If you find yourself on the fence about whether or not to venture out on Nov. 4, please consider the following:
If you’ve ever lived as a renter, you were denied voting rights until the mid 19th century.
If you descend from immigrants, literacy tests were used to discourage naturalized citizens from voting.
If you are a black man, you were denied voting rights until 1870 and yet, Jim Crow danced a discriminatory jig, conspiring with poll taxes and threats to keep you from the ballot box.
If you are Asian, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 explicitly denied your ancestors citizenship and, therefore, the right to vote.
If you are a woman, remember your sisters who endured epithets and imprisonment to earn the privilege to cast their votes in 1920.
If you live with a disability, polling places were not required to provide accessibility until the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
Wherever you may fall on the political continuum, get up, get out and vote. It really does matter. We the People so desperately need a new lease on American life.
Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org or LittleDetailsCol@yahoo.com.